The Magazine

Bush's Off-year Election

Virginia's gubernatorial race is a test of the president's popularity.

Oct 24, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 06 • By FRED BARNES
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HISTORY IS NOT on Jerry Kilgore's side. The Virginia governor's election comes one year after a presidential election. And in the last seven races in Virginia, going back to 1977, the candidate of the party in the White House has lost. Kilgore, the former state attorney general, is, like Bush, a Republican. Still, Virginia is a Republican state (both U.S. senators, 8 of 11 House members, solid majorities in the state senate and house). But the governor's race is different. It's partly a referendum on the president.

Popular presidents don't help much. Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton saw governors in Virginia elected from the opposition party, Democrat Gerald Baliles in 1985 and Republican Jim Gilmore in 1997. But unpopular presidents can hurt. And that's what Bush is doing now in Virginia. The president won the state handily last year (54 percent to 45 percent) over John Kerry, but he's now hit a rough patch in the polls. Bush is a drag on Kilgore.

Early in 2005, Kilgore was running 5 to 10 points ahead of his Democratic opponent, Lt. Governor Tim Kaine. But as Bush sank, so did Kilgore. The race is now tied, with no single issue dominating the campaign. Democrats, thousands of them with Kerry bumper stickers still on their cars, are highly enthused, Republicans less so. This is bound to affect voter turnout on Election Day, November 8.

While Kilgore, 44, rarely mentions Bush and is unlikely to invite him to make campaign appearances, Kaine has tied himself closely to Mark Warner, Virginia's popular Democratic governor. Kaine refers constantly to the "Warner-Kaine" administration as if the two were elected as a ticket (they weren't) and as if he and Warner had governed Virginia jointly over the past four years (they didn't). Virginia has a one-term limit for governors, and Warner, a moderate, is now gearing up to run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008. He passed up a chance to challenge Republican senator George Allen in 2006.

Clinging to Warner gives Kaine moderate cover. The former mayor of Richmond, Kaine, 47, is either a suddenly lapsed liberal or a liberal masquerading as a moderate. Warner, 50, went out of his way to differentiate himself from Kaine on social issues (death penalty, guns) in the 2001 campaign. But now he is appearing in TV ads and stumping for Kaine. Without Warner, Kaine's chances of defeating Kilgore would be sharply diminished.

Kaine, a clever debater, has been tireless in playing the role of moderate. Running for lieutenant governor in 2001, he was pro-choice on abortion. Now he calls himself pro-life and favors some curbs on abortion. He's shown up at events of the conservative Family Foundation of Virginia. He insists he's promoted tax cuts in the past and isn't anti-gun. What Kilgore calls the "most massive tax increase" in Virginia history--it passed in 2004 with some Republican support--Kaine refers to as "budget reform."

But Kaine has split with Warner on one thing: campaign strategy. In 2001, Warner pursued a rural strategy, traveling with a bluegrass band, sponsoring a NASCAR team, and sounding pro-gun. He defeated Republican Mark Earley 52 percent to 47 percent. Kaine's plan emphasizes urban areas, particularly the northern Virginia suburbs of Washington. By piling up majorities there, he hopes to overcome Kilgore's strength in rural Virginia.

Kilgore is following Bush's strategy. The president won lopsided majorities in rural Virginia and in most suburbs and exurbs, and he did well enough in the three suburban counties outside Washington to win easily. The problem for Kilgore is coming close to Bush's success in rural areas and northern Virginia.

It's certain that Kilgore will win rural majorities. He's from Gate City in mountainous southwest Virginia and speaks with an Appalachian accent. And he's an unswerving conservative. But in a year when Republicans are less energized than in 2004, it may be difficult to stir a large rural turnout. The Republican National Committee will help by deploying its 72-hour plan for turning out Republican voters.

Northern Virginia is a bigger problem. A moderate candidate with no discernible accent is a good fit for the Washington suburbs. That's Kaine. A solid conservative who has a country twang and is linked to Bush isn't. That's Kilgore. Nonetheless, Kilgore won the endorsement of the Fairfax Chamber of Commerce because of his proposal for building more roads in the traffic-clogged suburbs. This surprised even Kilgore.